‘Once to Every Man & Nation': The End of Empire

In high school, we went to Evening Prayer six nights a week. The choir master had a knack for choosing hymns – we sang two or three each night – that underscored what was happening in our lives and the world beyond our walls.

Of the many that have stuck with me for a half century, one comes to mind at moments like this, when the political and social prospects seem especially grim. It appeared on the St. Joseph Chapel board as Hymn 519:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;

Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

 

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,

Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;

Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,

Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

 

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,

Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;

New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,

They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

 

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;

Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

James Russell Lowell wrote those lines in 1845. They were a bit more than a fifth of a much longer work, ‘The Present Crisis’. The great choice in front of the US was war with Mexico and the consequent expansion westward of slavery.

Fifty years later, on the eve of our second imperial war, the quoted lines were set to a contemporary Welsh hymn tune. The result: a hymn that stirs yet sobers.

A row behind me in Chapel sat Al McCoy, now a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. In the course of his distinguished academic career, Al became an expert on the social and legal consequences of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine Insurrection (1898-1910). He has illuminated the dark byways of the military and police intelligence strategies – including the use of torture – that grew out of our imperial cause.

Al’s work is not for the faint of heart. Whether on a high school wrestling mat or at a UW lectern, Al compels people to confront facts – and themselves.

Even though Al’s work is quite readable (no risk of the damning qualifier ‘for an academic’) his articles and books might be avoided by my peers in financial services as not relevant. They’re wrong.

Leave aside his important new TomDispatch.com essay on the ‘The Decline and Fall of the American Empire: Four Scenarios for the end of the American Century by 2025′ – which offers more insight into our long-term investment future than any analyst I’ve read.

Al’s reading of the American version of imperial administration illuminates the development of American management theory and systems – especially at the intersection of data gathering and analysis. It is no accident that much of the institutional and legal framework for the past 110 years were shaped by an Ohio corporate lawyer who became the only American to serve as an imperial viceroy (Philippines), president and chief justice of the Supreme Court: William Howard Taft.

The key to understanding and predicting corporate behaviour is corporate culture. Each corporate microculture is a variant on and a part of the larger culture. In the American Century, American business and American government (military and civilian) operated on the same administrative principles. They continue to.

At this moment, when the prospect of positive social change has receded to the point of vanishing, I hear Lowell:

New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,

They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

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Source: For much of the background on ‘Once to Every Man & Nation’: The Hymnal 1940 Companion, 3rd rev. ed., (New York: Episcopal Church Pension Fund, 1949), p. 312.

H/T: The Rev. William Penfield, organist and choirmaster during my years at Kent School, who was, not incidentally, in St. Joseph’s Chapel one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve ever encountered.

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